WASHINGTON - Officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government are accusing Iran of playing a key role in the fall of disputed territories in northern Iraq including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a claim rejected by Iranian officials.
This week the Iraqi government forces backed by Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) marched into the Kurdish-controlled disputed territories after Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga withdrew from the region.
"Iranians were leading the battle on Kirkuk and our forces had to withdraw to protect the lives of Peshmerga," Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the commander of Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, said in a statement Monday.
"The decision [to withdraw] was not a mistake," he emphasized.
The Iraqi army and the PMF started their advances into Kirkuk on Monday after weeks of threats following the Kurdish referendum.
Faced with minimum confrontation from Kurdish forces, the army captured the entire city including its key military installations and oil fields in a few hours.
While claiming that it respects Iraq's sovereignty, Iran has refused its involvement in the takeover.
"Iran has no role in Kirkuk operation and most Iraqi Kurdish people are opposed to [KRG president] Masoud Barzani's ambitions," Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told reporters Tuesday after a meeting with France's special envoy for Syria.
"We saw that almost without any conflict, the region came under the control of Iraqi central government. Barzani must realize and admit that he has made a mistake," he said referring to the controversial referendum vote that Kurdish leader adamantly supported.
Importance of Kirkuk
Kirkuk is rich with natural resources including gas and oil, and is part of territories claimed by both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan region. The city came under the control of Kurds in 2014 when the Iraqi forces left their bases following a large scale push by the Islamic State terror group.
The conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi government over control of the city is decades old. What exacerbated that situation was Kurdish Regional Government's decision to proceed with the controversial referendum and the inclusion of Kirkuk in the vote, despite strong opposition from the central government in Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider-al-Abadi said the takeover is within the "national constitutional mandate" to reinstall Baghdad's power over the "federal facilities" in Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition spokesperson told reporters Tuesday that based on their available intelligence, they have not seen Iranian IRGC units or the PMF in Kirkuk.
"We don't have any reporting or any indications that there are units in and around Kirkuk of [IRGC] elements," Colonel Ryan Dillion said.
But a statement from the Peshmerga Ministry on Monday claimed the Iraqi operation was led by an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) known as Iqbal Pur.
Domestically, some put the blame on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK) as well, alleging that because of their rivalry with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, they yielded the way for advancing Iraqi and PMF forces.
"The attack, which came from the Iraqi government, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and IRGC's Quds forces, is in retaliation to the calls for freedom by the people of Kurdistan," the Ministry of Peshmerga said in a statement. "Unfortunately, some PUK leaders aided the conspiracy … by leaving some key defense lines to the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iranian IRGC."
Ruling PDK officials blamed Iran for sowing the division among Kurdish political parties and using PUK as a means.
PUK officials denied the allegations of teaming up with Iran and cited the prevention of casualties to Kurdish forces as reason behind their retreat.
Monday's retreat continued onto Tuesday as well, with Kurds withdrawing from more territories in Nineveh Plains and the town of Sinjar.
Experts say the neighboring countries, including Iran, Turkey and Syria, which are home to a significant number of Kurdish population, fear that an independent Kurdistan could have a domino effect in the region. To prevent that, they argue that these powers take advantage of the internal divisions amongst Iraqi Kurds.
"It is clear that there is no coherence between Kurdish leaders and their forces," said Ammer Goli, a Hamburg-based Kurdistan affairs analyst.
"Kurdish forces are not lined under one banner or joint command but show their allegiances to various leaders and factions," he added.
Goli said Tehran has tried to sustain its leverage on the PUK for strategic purposes while the ruling PDK has warmed up its relations with Ankara.
Tehran strongly opposed the Kurdish referendum from the beginning and its strongman Ayatollah Khamenei called it a "plot by Zionists."
Iranian officials reportedly met with the PUK leaders several times in an attempt to dissuade them from their September 25 independence referendum.
Some experts believe Iran has maximized its benefits from the recent developments in northern Iraq and the region.
"Tehran has been the winner of the conflicts in the region so far," Julian Roepcke, a Germany-based analyst with Bild newspaper, told VOA.
"It is difficult to know if the Iraqi forces and its affiliated Shiite PMF militia started their attacks with a green light from Tehran, but the result seems to be in Tehran's benefits," Roepcke added.